The Long Battle to Make The Meg

Jason Statham's giant shark movie has been in development for years.

Jason Statham and director Jon Turteltaub’s giant shark movie The Meg will presumably do to theaters the opposite of what Syfy’s Sharknado series has done to television. That is to say, it’s going to make the storied history of sharks-eating-people trope great again. Whether the science fiction horror manages to accomplish this remains to be seen, though one thing is clear: The Meg is finally here.

This five-word declaration may not seem like much. Considering the fact that filmmakers have been trying to adapt author Steve Alten’s thriller Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror since its publication in July 1997, however, it’s practically a megalodon-sized miracle that this movie even exists. Before Warner Bros. got their hands on the property, Disney and New Line Cinema tried turning it into a movie. Before Statham and Turteltaub got involved, directors as varied as Jan de Bont, Guillermo Del Toro, and Eli Roth had circled the waters, looking for chum.

Meg follows paleontologist and marine biologist Jonas Taylor, who inadvertently discovers a living megalodon deep in the Marianas Trench during a top secret exploratory mission for the U.S. Navy. Taylor survives the incident, but is branded a madman by the U.S. government and promptly blacklisted. Years later, Taylor is recruited by a wealthy businessman whose private ventures into the Marianas Trench have rediscovered the massive prehistoric shark. As a result, the creature is unleashed upon the surface, forcing Taylor and company to try and stop it.

A bidding war for Alten’s manuscript erupted among major New York publishers, resulting in a $2.1 million deal for two books. It also became an international sensation, earning Alten’s publishers $1.3 million in foreign rights alone. Despite the fact that Meg was, as the author wrote in a letter responding to a New York Times Magazine article, selling $1.5 million worldwide, the book was poorly received. The Times had previously claimed that it “was roundly dismissed by critics for its lack of both scientific plausibility and literary merit.”

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To be fair, plenty of book critics had panned Meg upon its release. Yet with the recent theatrical releases of Jurassic Park and The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Meg was dubbed “Jurassic Shark” by many reviewers) in the ‘90s, and the surging popularity of the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week programming at the time, readers just couldn’t resist Alten’s over-the-top story. Yes, it sounds like a precursor to the more ridiculous aspects of the Sharknado films, but Meg maintained enough of a pseudo-scientific grounding to make it a bestseller.

In 2008 the Los Angeles Times ran a lengthy feature about the project’s then already-complicated production history. Titled “Trapped in the depths,” it recounts Alten’s drive to turn his novel, which spawned a series of sequel and prequel books, into a a “Jaws for a new generation.” The author said he “thought the movie would have been out and we’d be in sequels now,” adding he thought they would have had “a billion-dollar franchise” by 2008. “Unfortunately,” he concluded, “the timing hasn’t worked out.”

Alten sold the rights to Meg to Disney before he had even completed the book manuscript, but the studio’s eagerness wasn’t enough to ensure its success. “They stuck wings on the shark,” Alten said of the early script treatments. “They wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say. My role has got to be to keep the science and not the ridiculousness for Hollywood’s sake. One screenwriter had the shark growling.”

Frustrated with the process, the writer ultimately wrote his own treatment and passed it around, by which it landed in front of Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro. He never considered himself a potential helmer for the project, but the Mexican filmmaker loved the story and championed it among the New Line executives he knew. They subsequently got in touch with Speed and Twister director De Bont and brought him onto the project.

Before New Line was folded into Warner Bros. in 2008, the studio decided to take a serious gamble with a Meg adaptation as they believed that, aside from the original novel, the many sequels that Alten wrote presented franchise possibilities. They hired De Bont to develop the picture, and he “brought in a team of special effects and production experts to assist him, and even pre-sold rights on the picture to foreign distributors.” They also brought on Armageddon writer Shane Salerno to do a treatment of Alten’s story. Despite all their interest and efforts, New Line shuttered the project a few years later.

A studio spokesperson explained that “the script needed a lot of work; it was very expensive; and we did not choose the director or producers, who were already attached.” De Bont, however, claimed “it was a completely blown opportunity” and “such a fantastic subject matter,” instead blaming the studio for the film’s demise. Sure enough, New Line’s desire to slash the proposed budget significantly lead to its downfall.

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The possibility for a Meg film adaptation quickly into the ether and remained there until 2015, when Hostel director Eli Roth began circling the project. Variety announced Roth’s attachment to the adaptation, which was being talked up again thanks to Jurassic World’s monstrous box office success for Universal Pictures. Belle Avery and Colin Wilson were named as producers, Paycheck writer Dean Georgaris’ script would serve as the source material, and American companies financing it were receiving help from China.

Unsurprisingly, Roth didn’t remain attached for very long, and less than a year later Deadline revealed National Treasure’s Turteltaub was in talks to direct. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the former ultimately exited the project after he and Warner Bros. came to blows over a subject that was all too familiar by then: the budget. The film’s price tag was projected somewhere above $100 million, and following a yearlong box office slump, the two parties decided to part ways.

A month later, Statham was first named as a possible lead for the project, which was also being produced by the well known action movie figurehead Lorenzo di Bonaventura. The 51-year-old actor’s attachment to The Meg might sound ridiculous on paper, as it did when he was cast and, to be honest, it still seems that way on the eve of the film’s release. Yet this was the same man who made the Crank movies, joined the burgeoning Fast and the Furious franchise, and had the gall to poke fun at himself in Spy.  

What’s more, Statham has quickly become an internationally renowned star, much like fellow Fast and the Furious cast members Vin Diesel and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. So once he became attached to The Meg in 2016, everything else started coming together for the long-troubled production. Two years later, the first trailer dropped, as did hints from Statham and company of a possible sequel.

In other words, Alten and De Bont’s dreams of a global franchise are finally becoming a reality. The likelihood of a sequel (or sequels) obviously depends on the movie’s success, but if audiences fall in love with it as the author thought they would, then maybe it won’t take another 20 years to happen.

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This is a summer blockbuster that pits Jason Statham against a giant people-eating shark, after all, so we’re definitely going to get another one. Let’s just hope it’s more like Jaws 2 than Jaws: The Revenge.

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